Syria's acceptance today of Russia's proposal to place the war-torn country's chemical weapons under international control for dismantling has eased urgent talks about potential military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, although the plan has already bogged down as world powers haggle over the crucial element of how to enforce it.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his country agreed to Moscow's proposal after meeting Monday with the Russian parliament's Speaker. Moallem said the plan would "derail the U.S. aggression," referring to a White House push to urge Congress to approve military strikes on Syria following alleged chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus area last month. Al-Moallem did not provide any details about how Syria might comply with following through on the Russian proposal.
- Read about Obama's Syria pitch
- Read about the limited options U.S. has for a military strike
- Learn key facts, important players in Syria's civil war
A State Department official told The Associated Press that U.S. President Barack Obama is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Switzerland on Thursday to discuss a possible deal on Syria's chemical weapons with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The last-minute trip reflects a flurry of developments that have occurred since Russia said Monday it would push Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons stockpiles and Syria agreed.
France had said it would attempt to hold Syria to its commitment to Russia with a resolution at the United Nations Security Council that was to be introduced Tuesday evening. However, the 15-member UN Security Council cancelled plans for closed consultations on the resolution.
The resolution had called for "extremely serious consequences" if Syria violates any of its provisions, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at a news conference. France had intended to put forward the draft resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, making it enforceable with military action.
That met swift opposition from Russia. President Vladimir Putin said the plan can only work if "the American side and those who support the U.S.A, in this sense, reject the use of force."
Lavrov told his French counterpart Fabius that it is unacceptable for the resolution to cite Chapter 7, his ministry said in a statement.
Kerry, in turn, said the U.S. rejects a Russian suggestion that the UN endorsement come in the form of a non-binding statement from the Security Council president.
The U.S. has to have a full resolution — one that entails "consequences if games are played and somebody tries to undermine this," he said.
Tradeoff is realpolitik
Neil Macdonald, CBC's senior Washington correspondent, told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that Russia will never accept France's resolution, which includes explicit blame on the Assad regime for the chemical weapons attack and a reference to the International Criminal Court.
Macdonald said the tradeoff boils down to Assad giving up his chemical weapons in return for staying in power and using his government's conventional weapons against the Syrian rebels.
"It's a very ugly tradeoff but it's realpolitik," Macdonald told CBC host Evan Solomon from Washington. "One suspects that the question is going to be whether those key provisions in the French resolution fall away. There has to be some nod towards them after all the sermonizing that has gone on here from the administration the past three weeks. But, in the real world, is it worth the price of letting him stay there to get rid of the chemical weapons? The answer is probably going to be yes."
A statement issued by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada supports a political solution and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, but that actions would speak louder than words.
"Canada will wait to see what the particulars are for securing and destroying the entirety of the Assad regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons immediately," Baird said. "Trusting the regime to comply with any commitment after years of deceit would be a challenge. We want to ensure this proposal is not merely a delay tactic.
U.S. senators wary of military intervention
The dizzying diplomatic manoeuvring threatened what had been growing momentum toward the plan and away from military action. Domestic support for a strike is uncertain in the United States, even as Obama seeks the backing of Congress for action — and there has been little international appetite to join forces against Assad.
For his part, Obama — who is set to speak to Americans in a televised address starting at 9 p.m. ET — said he supports the UN Security Council talks aimed at securing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, although he continued to press the idea of U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime if the UN move fails. As well, a bipartisan group of senators put together a rejigged congressional resolution calling for a UN team to remove the chemical weapons by a specific deadline and authorizing military action if that doesn't occur.
The senators working on the proposal are Republicans John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss, and Democrats Chris Coons, Bob Casey, Chuck Schumer, Carl Levin and Bob Menendez.
Obama discussed the UN talks plan with Hollande and Cameron before travelling to Capitol Hill to discuss diplomatic and military options with Democratic and Republican senators growing more wary of U.S. military intervention.
"The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify," Obama said in an interview with CBS. "The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed."
Lavrov said Russia is working with Syria to prepare a detailed plan of action that will be presented soon.
Lavrov said that after a plan of action with Syria is developed, Russia will be ready to finalize the plan together with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Syrian opposition group urges military strikes
Despite Syria's acceptance of the Russian proposal, the Syrian National Coalition urged the West to strike Assad's regime, saying Syria's acquiescence is a manoeuvre to escape punishment for last month's chemical attacks.
In a statement, the coalition said Moscow's proposal "aims to procrastinate and will lead to more death and destruction of the Syrian people."
"A violation of international law should lead to an international retaliation that is proportional in size," the group said. "Crimes against humanity cannot be dropped by giving political concessions or by handing over the weapons used in these crimes."
The alleged Aug. 21 chemical attacks on the outskirts of the Syrian capital killed more than 1,400 people, according to the U.S., which has blamed the assaults on the Assad regime.
Nerve agent 'most likely' sarin
Meanwhile, Nabil Elaraby, chief of the Arab League, which has blamed Syria for last month's alleged chemical weapons attacks, said Tuesday he supports Russia's proposal, adding that the league has been always in favour of a "political resolution." The league has called for whoever was behind the attacks to be brought to justice, but it doesn't support military action without UN consent.
Also Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said it examined documents from the alleged chemical attack outside Damascus and concluded that the nerve agent used was, "most likely, sarin."
In a 22-page report released Tuesday, the group said it was unable to go to Ghouta to collect remnants of weapons, environmental and bodily samples such as hair and blood of the victims to test for the chemical agent, but that it sought technical advice from an expert on the detection and effects of chemical warfare agents.
Human Rights Watch also said it analyzed witness accounts and "the type of rockets and launchers used" in last month's attacks. As well, the group studied the medical symptoms of Syrian people affected by the chemicals and analyzed activist videos posted on the internet.
"This evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs that terrible morning," said Peter Bouckaert, HRW's emergencies director.
Assad and government officials have denied their forces used chemical agents. Instead, they blame the Syrian rebels for staging the attacks to gain international sympathy.